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The Young Conductor III - learning repertoire

Learning repertoire is another life-long (and fascinating) part of being a conductor.
For the beginning conductor it seems a daunting task, so first know that it's never-ending. Don't worry that you don't yet know enough, just get started.
First, of course, you'll learn the repertoire you sing. That doesn't mean it will be appropriate for the first ensembles you conduct, but it's an important building block in your knowledge. That said, take every opportunity you have to sing in more ensembles. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington when Rod Eichenberger led the choral program, I sang in almost every grad student's recital choir. In that way I was exposed to much more repertoire than I would have just singing in the UW Chorale. I also occasionally sang with other choirs, mostly to see a particular conductor work, but I also learned a huge amount of new repertoire.
I should also say that you need to start building your own score library. This is tough (financially) for a student and perhaps even for the young conductor starting her career, but will pay long-term dividends. In one of my methods classes we did a lit project writing down information about repertoire on file cards (yes, it'd be on computer today!). While this is helpful, later when you need to decide on one piece or another for your choir, you need to look at the specific score itself: is the tessitura too high for your tenors? range too low for your basses? how difficult is it to learn? So buying scores needs to be some sort of budgetary priority.
Go to concerts. If the symphony nearby is doing a choral/orchestral work you don't know--go! If another college choir comes to town on tour--go! If there's a good church choir doing a concert--go! Just go and listen and learn. Take notes in the program if you love particular pieces.
I was also lucky at the UW in that I started hanging around Rod's office listening to his discussions with the grad students. This was in the days when publishers gave away many more comp copies of scores than they can afford to today, and Rod had a couple huge stacks that hadn't been filed. Since I was hanging around, he told me if I'd file those scores for him I could keep any duplicates. This was a double win: I got the beginnings of a very good choral library (even things like some of the Bach motets), but would also look through each file when I put a piece away (they were filed alphabetically by composer). If I put away a piece by Hindemith, I'd look to see what else Hindemith had written. Consequently I got a great overview of the repertoire.
When I was in Europe on a choir tour with the UW Chorale I sought out music stores there. I still have Doblinger scores that I bought in Vienna and a few I bought in Paris. In Paris my French pronunciation clearly wasn't too good since I asked for "choeur" music and they brought me to the files of "cor" (horn) music! After that tour I stayed in Europe for another couple months and picked up music in other places as well.
Conferences are another great place to get to know repertoire: first, you'll hear lots of choirs singing great music you don't know. Keep notes of pieces you particularly like so you can acquire the scores later. Or if you hear a particular composer whose music you like, make a note to find out what else they wrote. And, of course, spend time in the exhibits, both of music stores and publishers. Between the many ACDA, MENC, IFCM, ACCC and other conferences I've attended, I've been exposed to a huge amount of repertoire. But you have to take notes or buy scores to remember what was worthwhile!
Workshops/Festivals are much the same. I was a student at the Oregon Bach Festival very early on (1972, the third year of the Festival, when it was still relatively small) and Helmuth Rilling told us if we'd give him our addresses, he'd pass them on to Günter Graulich, then the chief editor at Hänssler and after owner of Carus-Verlag. So I started getting their newsletters at that time, first in print, than later via email, and always was kept abreast of the huge catalogue that's been built over the years (and I still get their email newsletters today). Since I was particularly interested in early music, it was a great resource. Through Bob Scandrett I later got to know Graulich when he did a workshop at Western Washington University in Bellingham, along with Greg Smith and Louis Halsey. Bob then arranged a study tour of England in 1975 (follow the link from Bob's name to a series of blog posts about that trip) which introduced a huge number of composers and their music to me. This wasn't all new music--I heard Roger Norrington's Heinrich Schütz Choir rehearsing Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers which inspired me to learn the music and find a way to program it a year later.
Recordings are another obvious resource. With something like Naxos available today, you can have access to an amazing library of recordings online--many more than you'll ever be able to listen to. When you hear music of a composer you like, it can be a quick way to explore some of their other repertoire. And as a "dinosaur" of sorts, I still buy a fair number of CDs--old habits die hard!
As you begin to conduct your own choirs, you'll have reason to explore specific repertoires. When I taught at Mt. Holyoke I had reason to learn a lot of women's choral music. The wonderful library there provided a great resource, of course, but I also looked outside for other repertoire. During my time at PLU we started a men's chorus which I conducted, and that was the impetus for looking for male chorus repertoire. Since I haven't conducted a women's or men's chorus since then, I haven't kept up with the field, but whether you're looking for repertoire for the male changing voice, madrigal repertoire, choral/orchestra rep suitable for your church or HS choir, etc., you'll explore those areas in much more depth. A couple years ago I took on an Interim Choirmaster position at a big Episcopal Church in Dallas, where they sing Evensong every Sunday during the academic year. That gave me the excuse to learn a huge number of "Mags & Nuncs," along with Preces and Responses and much other Anglican repertoire I love. Whether it's one of the genres I've mentioned or vocal jazz, spirituals, gospel, African Freedom songs, or music from other cultures, there's always something new to discover, depending on the needs of your choirs.
Your colleagues will also be a fantastic resource once you become a conductor. You need to ask them what they consider the core repertoire for the middle school, or high school training choir that you're now conducting. Or to say, "What have you done recently that was a huge hit with your singers?" I've found my colleagues over the years to be incredibly generous. When I first became conductor of Pro Coro Canada in Edmonton, I traveled to Vancouver, B.C. and spent the day at Jon Washburn's house, looking through his vast library of music by Canadian composers and asking questions. I think you'll find similar generousity--just remember to pay it back to other conductors one day!.
If you have further ideas, please share them in comments!
While learning our vast repertoire is challenging (too vast to learn more than a fraction), it's one of the joys of being a conductor--there's always a new composer or piece to discover and then to share with your singers and audience! Don't be afraid of how much you have to learn, just begin.
on January 30, 2014 7:38am
Just an excellent article, Richard!  It brought back memories of having access to the score libraries of several conductors I had the privilege of studying with, but it also recalls one sabbatical experience I had while on a short trip to Germany. I had decided to spend a month or so in Stuttgart to observe rehearsals of Frieder Bernius with the Kammerchor Stuttgart and to hear some performances in Helmuth Rillings annual Bach Festival. At one of those concerts I happened to meet Günter Graulich, owner and publisher of Carus Verlag and his wife. Before the evening was over they had offered me a free room in boarding house they owned across the street from their residence, and breakfasts with them every morning. More significantly for me, the Carus headquarters occupied the lower floors of the house in which they lived, and they had a single copy file of every Carus publication. Günter gave me access to the entire library, plus a keyboard on which to play through pieces of interest.  Together with being able to observe Bernius at work with his choir on a Brahms recording project, as well as being invited to sing in several performances the Kammerchor gave of the Brahms Requiem, it was without question the best month of my entire sabbatical that year, and I will always be grateful for this lovely couple's generosity, from a chance meeting at a concert.
on January 30, 2014 11:22am
Stanley Schmidt, January 30, 2014
Brovo Richard!    There are a few things that helped me in finding literature.    1) Being selected in the early 70's to sing with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival.  Just singing under his paton was priceless.   Participating in every singing opportunity you can find.   2) Working with Composer/Conductor John Rutter and running his Collegium Record Company in the U.S. was another big step.   To be able to have first hand knowledge of how and what the Cambridge Singers recorded was essential.   Having an opportunity to discuss with Mr.Rtter  the verious projects was a dream.    3) Along with the Collegium Label I gathered as many good recordings I could find to sell at ACDA Conventions and began listening.   Meeting and sharing with choral directors and sharing their literature is a must.  Finding good music to sing just does not happen...  you have to search and search and the best way to find this for me was listening each day to something new.  4)  In 1983 a wonderful Chorale dropped into my lap and as their director for 20 years along with working with John Rutter and selling recordings at the Oregon Bach Festival my knowledge of literature expanded.  5) Finally, in 1993 a local radio Station in Omaha KVNO.ORG at the University of Nebraska ask me to begin doing a weekly choral show and 21 years later,  accumulating over 9000 choral recordings and almost 1000 broadcasts there is not a month goes buy that I do not receive at least 30 new recordings from all over the world.    How lucky can a person be.    Another side issue and really another topic is Programming.   Making sure each radio show is interest high and one tune follows the other to excite the listener is so important.  In closeing I would encourge you to Listen to anything you can get a hold of, then you will know the good and the not so good and what will work with you choir.         Here is an idea: Go to the blog of my website.   There you will see CD images and complete lists of Music heard on Going Beyond Words for the last five years.   That is one source use it's free.  (
on January 31, 2014 4:20am
Len and Stanley, thanks to you both for your contribution! The stories of kindnesses from fellow colleagues are amazing. And thanks for the resource, Stan.
on January 31, 2014 8:43am
This is a great article, and definitely one of the difficulties of being a conductor for sure. There is just too much music out there to filter through! I find it especially difficult because I want to find the right balance between sharing great music with my choir and doing a diversity of work. I like to do things not everyone is doing, which means a lot of digging.  Two resources I find particularly helpful are lists like Project Encore that have already taken the time to curate a list of works that aren't performed too enough, but are all excellent.  My other strategy is look at a choir with a taste in repertoire I relate to and see what they've done. In particular, I often check out C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, but the SF Choral Artists is another good pick. Combined with resources like Spotify and Naxos, it makes finding new rep much easier.
As a personal plug, I actually started a publishing company, See-A-Dot Music Publishing to help solve problems like this.  It's similar to Project Encore in that it is a tightly curated list of stand out choral works, making it easy to filter and find noteworthy music.
Thanks for bringing up this topic, it's something I think about a lot, and as a publisher a problem I want to make easy to resolve, so if people have other ideas keep sharing them!
on February 3, 2014 11:14pm
Richard Sparks writes:
"Go to concerts. If the symphony nearby is doing a choral/orchestral work you don't know--go! If another college choir comes to town on tour--go! If there's a good church choir doing a concert--go! Just go and listen and learn."
While applauding energetically his advice to hear as many concerts as possible, may I respectfully suggest that you not limit yourself to choral, or vocal, concerts? There is some music out there -- real music, no less -- that is so despite its unfathomable lack of singing voices. And while hearing college choirs on tour or local church choirs is valuable, may I suggest that in hearing Beethoven's late quartets, Debussy's sonatas or piano pieces or Webern's ensemble music, you will enrich yourself immeasurably, in addition to avoiding the possible ghettoization of yourself as a choral musician rather than a musician. (I might suggest the same, but in reverse, to pianists or violinists unfamiliar with the B-minor Mass or the Missa solemnis or Ein deutsches Requiem.)
Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman
Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
on February 4, 2014 7:19pm
Thanks, Jerome! I absolutely agree and speak to this in the next blog post, coming out Thursday.